21st Century Feminism: Girls Allowed

After the recent publication of the Sex and Power report from the Human Rights commission, Kirstien Hodgson asks if feminism is as relevant today as it once was

I have of late realised that I am increasingly becoming numb to the predictable responses I usually receive when I dare to utter the word ‘feminism’. Have you recoiled in fear at the very title of this article? Look at yourself in the mirror… have your eyes glazed over yet? These are the most common reactions; a mixture of ‘how does this apply to me?’ and ‘what on earth is there left to complain about?’

From females who are uncomfortable with the feminist chat I have often felt their need to distance themselves from me and my ‘unfeminine’ ways, as if one look could turn them into dungaree-wearing lesbians (for the record this is not a power I possess). From men the responses vary from mild irritation or reacting as if they are under attack in some way to a sly smile that suggests, ‘she’s a feisty one this one…could be a bit of a challenge in the bedroom…maybe she’ll tie me up or something…’ (Don’t even ask). Of course there is occasionally that rare ray of sunshine when the response is enthusiasm and I am not made to feel like a complete plank.

Why has ‘feminism’ become such a dirty word? It seems that the term has acquired so many ridiculous connotations that the truth of the theory has been completely lost. These, often absurd, misconceptions are in part a hangover from the second wave of the movement when feminists nationwide were afflicted by a dangerous condition commonly referred to as the 80’s. Along with perms and power-dressing the 80’s did things to feminism that we are only now beginning to rectify.

The media can take some responsibility for fuelling the stigmatisation that occurred during this time, but ultimately the responsibility to challenge any preconceptions we may have about the movement lies with us all.

So let us address a few of the common myths about feminism. Beginning with what, in my experience, has been the most frequent response from those whom object to the very existence of a feminist movement. It is widely believed that men and women have achieved equality nowadays and thus that feminism is redundant. Indeed, here in Britain we are extremely lucky that we have come such a long way along the path to equality, but we haven’t come far enough. There are still major issues that need to be addressed. According to Amnesty International, in Britain one in four women will be a victim of domestic violence in their lifetime; on average 167 women are raped everyday in the UK and there are 250 reports of forced marriage made to the Foreign Office every year.

If that is not enough to convince someone that a pro-women movement is necessary then there are global statistics that demonstrate the truly appalling treatment of women worldwide: Amnesty reports that ‘at least one in every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime, according to a study based on 50 surveys from around the world’. Also The World Health Organisation has reported that ‘up to 70% of female murder victims are killed by their male partners.’

This universal epidemic of violence against women is surely cause enough for wide-spread outrage and proof that the feminist message is completely relevant to us today. If women and men want this madness to stop they must raise their voices and lend their support to the feminists already campaigning for change.

Glasgow University student and fellow feminist, Jen Symington, was part of last January’s protests on campus against the proposed amendments to the 1967 Abortion Act. She emphasises the need for a link between accepting the ideas of feminism and taking that next step of actually getting involved with the movement, she says “Its great to be a feminist but its also really important to be an activist too and to do something with those views, to be connected to other people who share those views because you are always much more effective when you unite with like-minded people.”

Judith Orr, a socialist feminist writer, activist and speaker, argues that people should join the movement because the fight for equality is far from being won. She claims, “There’s still deep inequality in our society. Women are still discriminated against because they’re women. Average pay for women is around 18% less than the average pay for men. Our National Parliament only has 18% of its MPs as women and that’s the highest it’s ever been. If you ask people, ‘Do you want to be treated equally? Do you want to have the right to a job with equal pay and to be treated in a serious way and not trivialised and not be judged by your looks or the colour of your hair or the size of your bra? Is this what you want?’ most will answer yes and of course that’s what feminism and women’s liberation is all about, being treated equally in society. I think if you ask most people about those sorts of issues they’ll say that they’re against women’s oppression.”

The recent ‘Sex and Power’ report, published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission as a part of their ‘Working Better’ project, sheds new light on the inequality that exists in our society between the genders. It reveals that it will take 200 years for women to be equally represented in Parliament, shockingly, the report points out, just a few years longer than it would take a snail to crawl along the entire length of the Great Wall of China.

The report also claims that, ‘The UK currently ranks 70th and is outperformed by Rwanda, Afghanistan and Iraq in terms of women’s representation’. Moreover it is reported that it would take 55 years (which has gone up from 40) to have equal representation in the judiciary and 73 years (again this has gone up from 65) for there to be an equal number of female directors of FTSE 100 companies.

The worryingly slow pace of progress in getting women into positions of authority is in stark contrast with other statistics stated in the report, such as the fact that ‘nearly three out of five recent first degree graduates are women’ and that ‘we are moving to a position where women could eventually make up more than half the work force.’

The report points to sexual discrimination in the work place and the detrimental effect of stereotypes in an attempt to explain the lack of representation that these figures show. It also blames ‘our rigid, inflexible approach to work’, which often means that when women want to have children they are forced down or sometimes off the career ladder altogether.

Once the relevance of feminism has been proved it is necessary to challenge the stereotyping of the feminist which has become a huge obstacle in gaining support for the movement. For instance we all know the image of the feminist as a dungaree-wearing-lesbian. I’m sure some feminists do indeed have a penchant for all-in-one denim wear. Personally the last time I wore dungarees I was six and I don’t think the word feminism had entered my vocabulary yet. As for the sexuality issue, this misconception quite obviously stems from the idea that feminism equals an aversion to all things male.

This brings us onto another popular myth, namely that all feminists hate men. Let me make this point absolutely clear: feminism is not anti-men, in fact feminism is good for men.

Men should not feel threatened by the feminist movement. A patriarchal society is an unbalanced society and surely that’s not good for anyone. Feminism is simply about addressing the imbalance. The movement needs the support of men. Without this the divide will only grow wider. Judith Orr echoes this view, “I don’t like the sort of feminism that just sees men as the enemy. I think that men have to be part of the solution. It must be acknowledged that in society there is an element of which women’s oppression and division in society affects us all. I believe that men also have a lot to gain from a society which has women’s liberation at its heart.”

In the past the media have often chosen these anti-male ‘feminists’ as representatives of the whole movement because this kind of extremism is controversial and controversy sells. There are still groups of women around today who call themselves feminists and take an anti-male stance. For me this isn’t feminism at all, it’s a call to replace patriarchy with matriarchy, one imbalanced society with another.

Furthermore groups such as these are incredibly damaging for the actual feminist movement as they feed the stereotypes that need to be dispelled and alienate potential support. If you have experienced this kind of treatment at the hands of so called ‘feminists’ do not despair and whatever you do, do not give into the abyss of cynicism, they are not real feminists, they are just mean.

There also seems to be an underlying fear, especially amongst young women, that an acceptance of feminism has to mean a loss of femininity. Bollocks. Sorry, what I meant to say was that I think these two things are entirely compatible. We can celebrate feminine and masculine qualities whilst upholding the idea that men and women are equal and should be treated as such.

Charlotte Cameron from the Glasgow Feminist Network describes her own personal struggle with the feminist label, “I was very reluctant to call myself a feminist until I was around 17 when I realised that if men didn’t think I was hot for wanting equality, then those men weren’t worth my time. The stereotype of a feminist being a big fat ugly hairy lesbian hippy is one that dissuades lots of women from identifying as feminists. But I think the fact that the fear of being ugly, or having body hair, or loving other women has such a hold over us just proves why we need feminism – how can women be equal when we are made to feel like we aren’t women at all unless we’re completely hot and hairless? Feminists come from all walks of life, and we’re just as likely to wear heels and dresses as we are to wear boots and dungarees.”

I share Charlotte’s view, the point is this: you can be feminine and a feminist, you can be masculine and a feminist, you just can’t be a chauvinist and a feminist, that one doesn’t work.

There has never been a better time to rid ourselves of these misconceptions and get involved with the movement, It has recently been reported that there is currently a nationwide revival of feminism. After a dry spell of around a decade (Spare Rib ceased publication in the 90’s) there has been an influx of feminist magazines being launched here in the UK.

In the last 18 months 6 publications have started up. Knockback, Uplift! and Subtext are just a few names to look out for. The majority of these have been founded by young women who feel that there is a distinct gap in the market for an alternative to the magazines usually targeted at females.

Closer to home the renewed enthusiasm for the cause has manifested itself in the creation of the Glasgow Feminist Network which started almost a year ago and now has over 200 members. The Network has both a myspace and facebook page. Jen Symington discusses the importance of Glasgow University students in particular realising the role that they can play in the movement, she says “People are definitely becoming more organised in forming these links and forming these groups that can actually start to make real changes. I think that’s important on our campus and also in the wider context of this city, Scotland and Britain.”

I’m not calling for an all out rebellion… just yet. A direct result of the false myths about feminism which pervade the British psyche and distort our understanding of the theory is that there are many people out there whose attitudes towards the very word border on hostility. Thus in order to have a national public debate on feminist issues we first need to target the problem of stigmatisation.

So, for now, if you previously fell into the ‘eyes-glazed-over’ category I simply ask that the next time someone mentions the dreaded F word in your presence you don’t shun them, maybe try and engage with the issue, be aware of it at least. On the other hand, for all those enthusiasts out there, if you have been so inspired by this article that you feel the need to revolt, burn bras and wage war on all patriarchal institutions then of course I’m with you all the way.


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